Gaza Crisis 'The Real Danger to Israel Comes from Within'
Israel pulled out of the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, but left behind death and destruction. Israeli sociologist Eva Illouz tells SPIEGEL that her country is gripped by fear and is becoming increasingly suspicious of democracy.
SPIEGEL: There was widespread support in Israel for the operation in the Gaza Strip, despite the huge numbers of civilian casualties and the deaths of hundreds of children. Why is that?
Illouz: Where you see human beings, Israelis see enemies. In front of enemies, you close ranks, you unite in fear for your life, and you do not ponder about the fragility of the other. Israel has a split, schizophrenic self-awareness: It cultivates its strength and yet cannot stop seeing itself as weak and threatened. Moreover, both the fact that Hamas holds a radical Islamist and anti-Semitic ideology and the fact that there is rabid anti-Arab racism in Israel explain why Israelis see Gaza as a bastion of potential or real terrorists. It is difficult to have compassion for a population seen as as threatening the heart of your society.
SPIEGEL: Is that also a function of the fact that Israeli society has become increasingly militaristic?
Illouz: Israel is a colonial military power, a militarized society and a democracy all folded into one. The army, for example, controls the Palestinians through a wide network of colonial tools, such as checkpoints, military courts (governed by a legal system different from the Israeli system), the arbitrary granting of work permits, house demolitions and economic sanctions. It is a militarized civil society because almost every family has a father, son or brother in the army and because the military plays an enormous role in the ordinary mentality of ordinary Israelis and is crucial in both political decisions and in the public sphere. In fact, I would say that "security" is the paramount concept guiding Israeli society and politics. But it is also a democracy, which grants rights to gays and makes it possible for a citizen to sue the state.
SPIEGEL: Still, many would say that Israel has gone too far in this war with Hamas.
Illouz: I think Israelis have lost what we can call a "humanitarian sensibility," the capacity to identify with the suffering of a distant other. In Israel, there has been a change in perception of the "Palestinian other." The Palestinian has become a true enemy in the perception of Israelis, in the sense that "they are there" and "we are here." They ceased having a face and even a name.
SPIEGEL: Do you have an explanation for the shift?
Illouz: Israelis and Palestinians used to be mixed. They worked as construction workers and as cheap, underpaid labor. Then the wall was built. Then the road blocks came, which hampered the Palestinians' freedom of movement. The massive reduction in work permits followed. And in a few years Palestinians disappeared from Israeli society. The Second Intifada put the nail in that coffin, so to speak. The nature of Israeli leadership has also changed. The messianic right has progressively gained power in Israel. It used to be marginal and illegitimate; it is now increasingly mainstream. This radical right sits in Parliament, controls budgets and has changed the nature of discourse. Many Israelis do not understand the radical nature of the right in Israel. It successfully disguises itself as "patriotic" or "Jewish."
SPIEGEL: Why is the right so strong at the moment even though there are far fewer terror attacks in Israel than there used to be?
Illouz: Entire generations have been raised with the territories, with Israel being a colonial power. They do not know anything else. You have the settlements which are highly ideological. They expanded and entered Israeli mainstream political life. Settlements were strengthened by systematic government policies: They got tax breaks; they had soldiers to protect them; they built roads and infrastructure which are much better than those inside the country. There are entire segments of the population that have never met a secular person and have been educated religiously. Some of these religious segments are also very nationalist. The reality we are faced with in Israel is that we must choose between liberalism and Jewishness, and if we choose Jewishness, we are condemned to become a religious Sparta which will not be sustainable. Whereas in the 1960s, you could be both socialist and Zionist, today it is not possible because of the policies and identity of Israel. Then you have the role which Jews who live outside Israel play in Israel. Many of these Jews have very right-wing views and contribute money to newspapers, think tanks and religious institutions inside Israel. Let's face it: the right has been more systematic and more mobilized, both inside and outside Israel.
SPIEGEL: Do Jews in the Diaspora see Israel differently than do Jews in Israel?
Illouz: Diaspora Jews have been shaped by the memory of the Shoah. They often live in societies in which their own democratic rights are guaranteed. Sometimes they are under the assault of anti-Semitism and thus feel an urge to reinforce Jewish identity. They do not understand the distress of Israelis who see democracy progressively eaten away by dark forces. Today, Diaspora Jews and Jews in Israel do not have the same interests anymore.
SPIEGEL: What will happen if democratic principles continue to erode?
Illouz: One or two years ago, the newspaper Haaretz conducted a poll which found that 40 percent of the people said they were considering leaving Israel. I don't know the actual numbers, but I have never heard as much alienation from Israel as during this period. The people who live in secular Tel Aviv have much less in common with their religious counterparts in Jerusalem than they do with people living in Berlin.
SPIEGEL: You describe a fearful, anxious country.
Illouz: Fear is deeply engrained in Israeli society. Fear of the Shoah, fear of anti-Semitism, fear of Islam, fear of Europeans, fear of terror, fear of extermination. You name it. And fear generates a very particular type of thinking, which I would call "catastrophalist." You always think about the worst case scenario, not about a normal course of events. In catastrophalist scenarios, you become allowed to breach many more moral norms than if you imagined a normal course of events.
SPIEGEL: Still, there is a very real threat to Israel. Whereas Israel sees itself as the victim, the rest of the world is increasingly seeing the country as a violent occupying power.
Illouz: Yes, you are right. But Israelis see only the tunnels, which were about to hurt the heart of their own society. A tunnel vision sustained by the discovery of the real tunnels. It is very difficult to stop being afraid in the midst of people who do not wish you well. Israelis live with constant fear, and the world does not understand this fear.*
SPIEGEL: Do you have an explanation for this lack of understanding?
Illouz: Imagine that you were a girl raised by a very brutal father. You would develop a "healthy" suspicion of men and would become very cautious. If you were to live for a time in an environment of good and nurturing men, your suspicions would relax. But if you lived in an environment in which some men were very brutal and some were not, your healthy suspicion would turn into an obsessive incapacity to differentiate between different types of men, the brutal and the caring. That is the historical trauma of the consciousness that Jews live with. The Israeli psyche has become incapable of making these distinctions.
SPIEGEL: Does this fear justify the kind of brutal violence that has been visited upon the civilian population in the Gaza Strip?
Illouz: Of course it doesn't. I'm only saying that fear is central to the Israeli psyche. These fears are cynically used by leaders like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He makes Israelis believe that they all want to destroy us. Hamas wants to destroy us, the UN wants to destroy us, al-Qaida and Iran want to destroy us. ISIS wants to destroy us. The European anti-Semites want to destroy us. This is basically the filter through which a conflict with Hamas is interpreted by the ordinary Israeli. Another dimension of this prism is that "they" are not human beings. Palestinians are dehumanized because they put their soldiers amongst civilians, send their children to fight, spend and waste their money on building deadly tunnels rather than on building up their own society. Along with the dehumanization of the other, Israelis have a strong sense of their own moral superiority. "We ask people to get out of their houses; we call them on the phone to make sure civilians are evacuated. We behave humanly," the Israeli thinks. An army with good manners.
SPIEGEL: And nevertheless, civilians have been the primary victims, with schools, housing complexes and hospitals being bombed.
Illouz: Yes, despite this, many Israelis still hold on the view they are morally superior. They judge by the intention, whereas the world judges by the consequences.
SPIEGEL: Still, an enormous wave of hatred has become visible in Israel in recent weeks. And it's not only directed at the Palestinians, but also at segments of Israeli society.
Illouz: Some basic norms of speech have been breached by some rabbis and Knesset members, who feel no qualms expressing hatred for Arabs in ways that provide legitimation to hatred. This is very worrisome. It happened because entire generations have been raised believing in religious and ultra-nationalist views. I don't think that there is more hatred in Israel than in some racist pockets of German or French society. But when some Palestinians recently sang in the streets of Paris "Death to the Jews," the reaction of the government of Prime Minister Manuel Valls was swift and clear. The authorities sent a strong message that there are forms of speech and forms of belief that are inadmissible. What is lacking in Israeli society is that kind of very strong moral normative claim coming from its leaders.
SPIEGEL: How do you explain this paradox -- the hate on the one hand and Israel's emphasis on its liberal values on the other?
Illouz: Israel started as a modern nation. It derived its legitimacy from the fact that it had democratic institutions. But it was also building highly anti-modern institutions in wanting to create a Jewish democracy by giving power to rabbis, in creating deep ethnic inequalities between different ethnic groups such Jews of Arab countries vs. Jews of European descent; Arabs vs. Jews; Jews vs. non-Jews. It thus blocked universalist thinking.
SPIEGEL: Would you say that the Jewish character of the country has subsumed the democratic character?
Illouz: Yes, definitely. We are at the point where it has become clear that Jewishness has hijacked democracy and its contents. It happened increasingly when the school curriculum started getting changed and emphasizing more Jewish content and less universal content; when the Ministry of the Interior expelled foreign workers because Shas party members were afraid non-Jews would inter-marry with Jews; when human rights are thought of as being left-wing only because human rights presuppose that Jews and non-Jews are equal.
SPIEGEL: That doesn't sound particularly encouraging.
Illouz: The only response is to create a vast camp of people who defend democracy. The right-left divide is no longer important. There is something more urgent right now: the defense of democracy. The voice of the extreme right is much louder and clearer than it was before. That's what's new: a racist right that is not ashamed of itself, that persecutes dissenters and even people who dare express compassion for the other side. The real danger to Israel and its sustainability comes from within. The fascist and racist elements are no less a security threat than the outside enemies.
SPIEGEL: Israeli enemies have also accused the country of no longer being democratic. Does that bother you?
Illouz: With all my critique and occasional disgust at Israeli arrogance, I am also puzzled that Israel is indeed singled out. Look at what happens in Syria or in Nigeria or Iraq. Why isn't the world demonstrating in the streets in the same way it is doing for Israel? America has also a shocking record outside its own borders. Where are the intellectuals who are going to boycott America? Where are they?
SPIEGEL: Do you support the military operation in the Gaza Strip?
Illouz: No, I don't. I'm not a pacifist in the sense that I do not think that military operations are always wrong. But I'm not in favor of this operation because there was no political process beforehand. Netanyahu gave such obvious sings that he was not interested in a political process. Instead, Netanyahu constantly undermined Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. I refuse categorically the idea that our only relationship with the Palestinians is a military one. We are in a march of folly. There is an increasingly large group of people who really think that they can subdue the Palestinian population and sustain a regime where Israel keeps dominating them.
SPIEGEL: Is that not the consequence of 47 years of occupation, this feeling of not having to make any more concessions?
Illouz: Israelis pay a price, but we are not really aware of it. We don't know how it feels to live in a peaceful society, devoted exclusively to culture, education and improving the living conditions of everyone. People don't make a connection between the bad living conditions they have and the amount of resources invested in the settlements and in the army. In psychology, they call it dissociation. Israeli society has become very insensitive. Not only to the suffering of others, but also to its own suffering.
*Eds. Note: The online version of this interview has been expanded to add an additional question and answer -- which was cut for space from the original interview -- so as to improve clarity regarding Ms. Illouz's position.